“WHEN I went into the Interfaith Hospitality Network Program, I was broken and discouraged. The people there saw things in me that I didn’t see. The program saved my life. There are no words to express how I feel,” said Julie Wieland.
Wieland is a graduate of the Interfaith Hospitality Network Program (IHN) in Colorado Springs and spoke to several hundred people at a recent fundraising event.
A large number of religious organizations have been involved in IHN over a long period of time, including the Colorado Springs Jewish community for at least the past 15 years. Participating churches and synagogues are considered “partner congregations” for the agency.
The mission of the interfaith network is to engage the community and its resources in providing basic, preventative and support services to families with children who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
The agency focuses on earlier intervention, assisting families before they end up homeless without any re-sources for shelter, safety or a healthy environment for their family.
Currently, 34 congregations in Colorado Springs provide volunteers, meal preparation or housing during the year for families in the IHN program. Since many of these congregations are large, the partner organization provides a foundational base for this type of volunteer effort in the community.
In the US, families with children are the fastest growing segment of the homeless population. Over 40% of the sheltered homeless people in Colorado Springs are families.
IHN provides shelter, sustenance and intense case management and referrals to local agencies as the families work to achieve four main goals: to stay together as a family; find employment; save the major portion of their earnings for affordable housing; and secure affordable housing.
In 2013, 24 families with a total of over 50 children participated and received support from the INH.
MORE than 15 years ago, Roberta Huttner became involved in IHN when her son was starting a mitzvah project for his Bar Mitzvah. They helped organize and prepare meals for families who were staying temporarily at one of the partner organization churches.
Currently, Roberta Huttner is the primary contact for IHN from Temple Beit Torah. Her responsibilities include coordinating synagogue volunteers to prepare and serve meals for IHN families on a quarterly basis.
Beit Torah has been a long-time supporter of IHN along with their collaborative partner, Faith Presbyterian Church.
The church provides shelter and the synagogue helps provide food, both of which create a sense of hope for homeless families with children.
Members of Temple Beit Torah have served on the IHN board and attended IHN’s annual “Hearts for the Homeless” events. This year’s event was the 17th annual “Hearts for the Homeless” luncheon and silent auction.
In 2013, a grant was awarded to Beit Torah by the Men of Reform Judaism congregational interfaith mini-grant program, made possible by the Jewish Chautauqua Society. The award helped to support Temple Beit Torah’s interfaith outreach efforts in the Pikes Peak Region, including outreach to IHN.
This year, the commitment of Beit Torah and Temple Shalom demonstrated the support of the Colorado Springs Jewish community to IHN.
According to Dick Conn, president of Beit Torah, “This demonstrates our collective commitment to interfaith efforts to help mitigate the pain of homelessness, especially among families, in our local community.”
Kim Gilbert, past president of Beit Torah, attended the recent event and emphasized the importance of working together with other religious organizations in support of the homelessness in the community.
“Linking hands together, we can accomplish more. It is especially important in the greater community to work together with volunteers from local churches which helps strengthen relationships, collaboration and friendships within the interfaith community here in town.”
Jewish teenagers have volunteered alongside adults as well.? Matthew Rathmann, a sophomore in high school, focused his Bar Mitzvah project on helping homeless families. He has continued to volunteer for IHN, preparing meals as well as doing yard work, painting and other much-needed tasks at the IHN house.
Rathmann said, “Helping these families is so important and I have really enjoyed volunteering at IHN with others from our Jewish community. I also recognized that these kids didn’t have school supplies, so I collect what they seem to need and bring baskets of books and school supplies each time I volunteer.”
Young volunteers are often affected in meaningful ways through their experience with the IHN families.
A note left by a young volunteer after helping serve a meal expressed his deep emotions: “Dear G-d, My heart was cracked when I saw a family from my own school here with their brothers and sisters. I would really like it if You could help this family through this hard time.”
IN addition to providing temporary shelter and meals, the Interfaith Hospitality Network provides rental assistance and case management so that families gain information to access resources in the community.
In some cases, IHN assists the families purchase or receive a donated vehicle; and in many cases, provides connections for job training or jobs in local organizations, which increases the family’s long-term stability.
Additional support for five to six months is often provided by the Parent/Family Alliance, which acts as a support team when families “graduate” from IHN and are in their own affordable housing.
Since parenting, financial and employment challenges are often long-term for the adults, the Alliance and IHN seek to continue with support services after graduation from the IHN program. In 2013, more than 20 families received this type of assistance and support.
Jane and Bob Neff, members of Temple Shalom, recognize that ongoing support is essential.
“We have seen the impact that this support has had on the families we have worked with for so many years,” they said.
“Breaking the cycle of homelessness and unemployment can be difficult, so long-term intervention is truly one of the keys to success.
Kathryn Lilley, a single mother of six children, shared her thoughts as she reflected on the impact of IHN on her and her family’s lives.
“When I came to IHN, I had hit rock bottom. There’s no greater pain than leaving your home and not knowing where you’re going to go with your children. There’s just no hope.
“But the first thing that IHN did was to give me hope. Plus there’s just so much love and support from the IHN community.”
Lilley, a Colorado native, had worked diligently to provide for her family after unexpectedly finding herself in the role of a single mom.
She owned and operated two businesses, relying on her bookkeeping and accounting background.
After one of her children was hospitalized, the demands increased and the situation became much more difficult as she tried to balance family needs, medical expenses and the businesses.
She decided to downsize their home to reduce expenses, but then found it nearly impossible to find affordable housing, which left the family without housing.
Since graduating from the IHN program, Kathryn is completing her LPN degree and her six children are in affordable housing.
ACCORDING to the National Center on Family Homelessness, one out of every 45 children in the US is homeless.
Family homelessness is the fastest growing segment of the homeless population, with a total of more than 1.6 million homeless children across the country.
“The pressing needs of these families and the importance of organizations like this is really the reason that I devote time and energy to IHN,” said Dr. Kate Raphael, a physician who serves on the IHN board.
Information: www.ihn-cos.org or on Facebook.